English spelling and the dream of reform

The Baltimore Sun

You may have admired Gokul Venkatachalam and Vanya Shivashankar for their feats of memory at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but it is also quite a feat if you are more or less competent at ordinary English orthography.

English, a bastard language, abounds in bastard spellings. Those damn Normans grafted all manner of French words onto Germanic Anglo-Saxon, and the learned kept meddling with the language to make it more like Latin. (Bryan Garner points out that comptroller, which is supposed to be pronounced “controller,” has that spelling because of the zeal of fifteenth-century Latinists who wanted to made words from French more nearly resemble the spelling of “purer” Latin originals.)

The dictionaries of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster and their successors, along with universal public education, have done a good deal to smooth the ragged edges of English spelling, but it is still riddled with exceptions and maddening anomalies.

At Lingua Franca, Allan Metcalf draws attention to the English Spelling Society, which is embarking on a virtuous project next year to reform English spelling.

I wish them luck, though I cannot offer them optimism. The campaigns by people who can’t stomach singular they to invent an epicene third-person singular pronoun are littered with failures, and attempts to reform English orthography have met a similar fate.

Noah Webster had a profound effect on American English with his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language and the millions of copies of his Blue-Backed Speller. He dropped the u from honor and color, the k from critic and public. But the people never took to many of his suggestions: tung for tongue, soop for soup, steddy for steady. Even his profound influence was limited.

George Bernard Shaw left a significant chunk of his estate to the Simplified Spelling Society, which has gained little traction after more than a century of well-meaning efforts.

Some years after the redoubtable Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick answered the call to glory, the Chicago Tribune quietly dropped the simplified spellings he had imposed on the newspaper in 1934.

The obstacles to spelling reform are even greater today, well beyond the U.S.-British divide. English is a world language, and efforts to simplify its orthography by making it more phonetic will come up against the different sounds of English speakers. In the U.S. Midwest, for example, linguists have been discussing the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

Moreover, there has never been a central authority over English, because English has never stood for one. Proposals by Jonathan Swift and others for establishment of an English Academy to regulate the language have all failed.

The English Spelling Society, to make any headway at all, will have to persuade publications and pedagogues spread across the continents to adopt and promulgate whatever improvements in English spelling they settle on.

Lots of luck.

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